While in Providence, on Saturday, I was talking to a group of residents about the hey day of that city’s political history. I told them the story of how many Providence College students walked from the Catholic college to the downtown to hear U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy speak the day before he would be elected President of the United States. At the time, Kennedy had been under attack by anti- Catholic bigots who claimed that Catholic politicians shouldn’t get elected President because they would be controlled by the pope in Rome. But Catholic voters turned out in massive numbers all across the country to defend their faith and convinced American voters that they were faithful and patriotic Americans who would vote for the candidate who was best for our country. We thought that the election would finally end the Catholic bigotry in America once and for all. Kennedy’s victory was a win not just for Catholics, being the first Catholic to be elected President, but a major victory for all people who strongly believed in religious freedom. That of course was 1960, but I’m sad to say religious intolerance and Catholic bigotry is alive and well in much of the world today.
Cowardly, Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists in Egypt chose one the most important and holiest days of the year for Christians, Palm Sunday, bombing two Coptic Christian Churches killing at least 45 worshippers on Sunday. The Copts are the most ancient Christian people living in the Middle East. Tragically, many thousands have been massacred and driven out of the region by ISIS fanatics. This latest siege is certain to continue to drive Copts out of their homes and add to the already refugee crisis in much of the world. The world political community, especially the United Nations and the United States has stood by idly for the past several years and has done nothing to help protect Christians from radical ISIS terrorists in the Middle East.
The Easter season is the holiest and truly most reflective periods in the Christian faith and when our values and beliefs are foremost on our mind. I recall that attending daily religious ceremonies at the Vatican during the Easter season when I was U.S. Ambassador and listening to Pope John Paul II and even traveling to other regions in the world and meeting other prominent religious leaders. I often heard them stress the critical importance for people to demonstrate courage and hope in their lives which was truly an inspiring experience for me. From the Pope to Christian leaders in Egypt, Turkey, Syria, the Ukraine, and Bosnia along with world diplomats, I heard it repeatedly stressed that prayer was important, but participation in civic affairs was critical to the political and economic stability in the world. I have to admit that since returning home to America, I constantly think about those moving messages and experiences.
But I also think about why so many good people of faith and strong religious beliefs pretty much ignore those same messages that I heard so clearly and often from these world religious leaders. Their message was consequential and unmistakable, but rarely reported in the American press. Pope John Paul II had experienced the disaster of Hitler’s Nazi troops in his native Poland and then immediately after that the ruthless anti- God communist dictator Josef Stalin that his people had to live with that persecution most of his early life. I also got to know and listen to all of the Christian Orthodox Patriarch’s from Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople to Patriarch Krill I of Moscow to Patriarch Irine of Serbia as well as many Jewish religious leaders from throughout the Middle East, Europe and Israel. I would talk to them about political vigilance and even worked with them closely when The United States Government supported full diplomatic relations between the State of Israel and The Holy See. Obviously the horrors of Christian and Jewish brutality were major factors in there history.
But the shocking news on Sunday about the brutal bombing which massacred at least 45 Christians – while attending Palm Sunday Mass in two Coptic churches in Egypt and which ISIS terrorists claimed responsibility for- along with other horrendous world events recently like the deadly chemical bombings of children in Syria, rapes of young girls, bombings of churches and torture of Catholics, I am been deeply concerned about the silence in America. Our political parties seem more concerned about “gotcha politics” than working to address this “modern day genocide against Christians,” and not working for the common good and world stability.
Yes, I learned that informed and committed people are key to our nation’s and world’s safety. I’ve witnessed over the years that experienced and professional diplomats, dedicated military and U.S. Intelligence officials are vital, but its the responsibility of American voters to put competent patriotic public officials in positions of trust and authority.
But while attending Mass on Saturday afternoon and listening to Fr. Robert Casey at St Augustine’ Cemetery Chapel in South Boston, we heard him remind us about our Catholic values and traditions. While we must not let political events and division take our attention away from our faith, we must also not let special interest groups intimidate us from not standing up for what we believe, whether it’s here in Boston or in Egypt.
We were taught by our parents and Church that Easter is the “Season of Hope.” But it’s also the Season of Faith. It’s time for people of faith and love to come together and reflect on our values and religious beliefs and demand that they be reflected in our nation’s public policies. We constantly see partisan ideologues angrily sniping at each other on TV, while the national media inflames this division.
But getting back to my conversations with many Rhode Island people, including its Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, U.S. Congressman Jim Langevin, Mayor of Providence Jorge Elorza and so many other state and local officials, that attended a neighborhood tribute to respected Irish-American patriot and restaurant owner Patrick Griffin who I worked side by side with for peace and justice in Northern Ireland years back, when I said, “why do we have to listen to partisan political operatives give us their version of world events, while you live them?” It’s really time, for decent people of goodwill to get involved and be ” faithful citizens” as I heard Pope John Paul II so often say.
Has our country changed that much that the traditional values of faith and family in which our country was founded upon are on no longer important? We owe it to our children and our country to speak out, not in an angry, self-serving and partisan way, but with a united and unafraid voice that promotes the “common good” for all Americans, not just the elite and powerful.
Maybe this Easter season can be is a season to hope again. My South Boston neighbors certainly heard Fr Casey’s inspiring Palm Sunday homily about hope yesterday. I was inspired and encouraged by it.
Ray Flynn is the former Mayor of Boston and U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican.